On a hill overlooking the quiet, southern Italian town of San Giovanni Rotondo sits a state-of-the-art private hospital and research center built by one of the 20th century’s most beloved saints, Pio of Pietrelcina.

Known as “Padre Pio,” how did a poor Capuchin priest in ill health establish, on a rocky hilltop in rural Italy, one of today’s most efficient European hospitals – a project which he called his “earthly work”?

The beginning

Padre Pio understood physical suffering beginning from a young age, having been frequently ill. Even after he entered the Capuchins, making solemn vows at the age of 19, people doubted he would be well enough to finish studies for the priesthood or to live the strict rule of the Franciscans.

Despite this, three years later he was ordained a priest; and his experiences with illness led him to be close to the sick and suffering for the rest of his life. He would always say that Christ is present twice in the sick and the poor.

In 1918, the saint also received the visible stigmata – bleeding wounds corresponding to the five wounds Christ received at his crucifixion – while praying before a crucifix in the choir loft of the chapel of the Capuchin monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo.

He had settled permanently in the monastery of the small village, at the time comprised mainly of farms and shepherds, just six months before. From that time, he had the desire to create a hospital founded on the principle of caring for both the body and soul of the sick and suffering.

The first step toward fulfilling this dream began in 1925, with the conversion of an old, small convent into a clinic of just a few beds, reserved for those with extreme necessity.

Years passed, and at the end of 1939, Padre Pio again spoke of his desire to build a hospital, this time with several men who also believed in the project and who formed a group to support it.

The project unofficially began on Jan. 9, 1940, with the first collaborators each making a small donation toward the realization of the hospital. “I also want to give my offering,” the humble Padre Pio said, handing over a 10-cent franc he had received the same morning from a Swiss man.

The friar called the hospital the “Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza”, or “Home for the Relief of the Suffering”, because, as he said later, this “work” was “inspired and created to be a spiritual demonstration of God’s love through a call for charity.”

Construction commenced in 1947, though the roughly 20 workers hired at the start did not yet have an architectural plan for the building, and there were only 4 million Italian Lira (about $2,400 today) in the bank.

By this point many people had, from devotion or curiosity, been traveling to see Padre Pio in the poor village, and some thought the Capuchin friar and his group of supporters were crazy to be building a hospital in a village in southern Italy. But Padre Pio said: “The Work is not mine… but Providence’s.”

If he could, he said, he would build the hospital in gold, because whatever is done for the sick is done for Christ, and nothing can be too good for the Lord.

Inauguration

Eventually, it was completed, with the inauguration taking place May 5, 1956. The hospital, only receiving the designation of clinic at the time, had 250 beds. An out-patient clinic with additional departments and services was also a part of the Casa, with a round-the-clock emergency room, and a small chapel where Padre Pio would frequently pray.

At the inauguration ceremony, Padre Pio said, “a seed has been sown on the Earth that [God] will warm with the rays of his love… a place of prayer and science.” A year later, he noted that at the Casa “patients, doctors, priests shall be reserves of love and when it abounds in one, so it shall be passed to all.”

“The Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza has already opened its arms to many thousands of suffering bodies and spirits, offering to all, regardless of status, from the most wealthy to the less well-off, ministering to all, in generous measure,” he said.

From its start, the Casa was also helped by two nearby farms, which produce olive oil and all the dairy products used in the hospital.

Soon after its launch, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza was given to the Holy See by Padre Pio, being one of just two hospitals under the jurisdiction of the pope.

Years before the hospital was completed, groups of people had begun to provide spiritual support for the project. Promoted by Padre Pio, the prayer groups were in response to a call from Ven. Pius XII for people to gather to pray together, especially in the face of World War II.

“Without prayer, our House for the Relief of Suffering is somewhat like a plant without air and sun,” Padre Pio said, calling the prayer groups the “frontline of this little City of charity.”

The Casa today

These prayer groups continue to flourish today. And the hospital grows, with just under 1,000 beds spread across at least 26 medical and surgical departments, and another 14 departments for diagnosis and other services, all run by nearly 3,000 staff members.

From its humble beginnings as a private clinic, the Casa is now classified as a private national research hospital, specializing in genetic and hereditary diseases, and includes a home for the elderly and housing for families with children receiving cancer treatment.

During the first expansion in 1967, a second, larger chapel was added to the interior of the hospital. In the two chapels a rosary is prayed every day, three or more Masses are celebrated, and staff and patients stop by for moments of personal prayer.

Additional support for hospital staff includes regular spiritual and ethical training courses taught by theologians.

At the hospital’s 10th anniversary in 1966, two years before his death, Padre Pio reflected on the “humble origins” of the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, and how, coming from nothing, “the miracle of faith and charity to which this Work bears witness before the eyes of the world becomes all the more important.”

Entrusting the success of his earthly work to prayer, he said, it is that which “unites all good souls and moves the world, that renews consciences, that sustains the Casa, that comforts the suffering, that cures the sick, that sanctifies their work, that elevates simple medical assistance, that gives moral strength and Christian resignation to human suffering, that becomes a smile and the blessing of God upon weakness and frailty.”